I drag my feet all the way to the makeshift infirmary. The lights are low and I fumble with the switch for a moment before I hear the clanking and whirring noises that indicate the ancient ventilation system has started up again. I wind my way through Dr. Whitaker’s forest of machines and hop up on the examination table. Leaning back, my breathing evens out and I’m on the cusp of sleep when the sound Sydney’s heavy tread carries out through the expansive room.
I sit up and rub my eyes. Everything aches. My arm and my injured hand especially, and I know that by now there will be a few choice bruises forming across my ribs. I look up from inspecting the cut on my hand to meet Sydney’s hard brown eyes. They’re narrowed in suspicion, alert. It’s a poignant contrast with the rest of his disheveled appearance. He purses his lips, reaches forward and grabs my arm roughly. I hiss in pain and he scoffs.
“You’ll live,” he says gruffly, lowering his eyes to the cut. It’s a deep gash that spans the outside of my upper arm. “You’ll need stitches. Stay.” I bristle, hating the way he talks down to me. Like I’m some kind of lowly animal.
“Thanks but no thanks. I can do it myself,” I snap. He rolls his eyes, grabbing the materials from a metal drawer and slamming them on the table, stepping back. I stare at him, brows furrowed, and he makes a sweeping gesture indicating the needle and thread before crossing his arms defiantly. Glowering, I pick them up, struggling with the instruments, wincing when I begin threading the needle through my skin.
It takes a long moment before he deigns to interrupt.
“Stop. You’re going to butcher it, and if you lose an arm I’ll never hear the end of it.”
“How generous of you,” I state.
Sydney’s only response is to scowl, and I watch as his steely eyes become fixed in concentration and he attempts to correct my botched work. He shudders only a second when he touches me, but it’s enough. It’s the closest we’ve ever been and I take the time to consider the person in front of me. His dirty blond hair is sticking out in several directions and the dark circles beneath his eyes are telling. Every time he’s forced to place a hand on my skin he cringes in disgust and it is because of this response that I make a decision. Aside from Darrow who attacked out of a need for physical release, Sydney has been my most outspoken aggressor. Maybe if I can understand him, win him to my side, I’ll have a better chance of proving I can be trusted. Maybe have a better chance of survival.
He’s focused intently on my arm when I break the silence.
“Why do you hate the EXCERP soldiers so much?”
Sydney’s fingers jerk and it pulls the stich. I hiss in pain.
“Your kind has been responsible for the destruction of millions of people,” he says, regaining his composure.
“That doesn’t have anything to do with you, though,” I say, “they must have done something to you.” He doesn’t answer. “Your family?”
Sydney grimaces and pulls the stitch a little tighter. Something in his expression warns me to back down, but delicacy has never really been my strong suit.
“So I’m guessing it’s your family,” I continue digging. His distaste for EXCERP is poignant, almost absurd, and I wonder what hidden chain of events would trigger such heedless hostility. If it’s a concealed reason it’s one I’d like to know. Sometimes secrets are like new wounds, the more you pick at them the more likely they are to open up. So I pry. “Mother? Sister?”
Sydney reels back and his eyes are wild. He drops the needle, leaving it dangling by a thread. He leans in close. His nostrils flare in anger, brown eyes scrutinizing me with distain.
“What’d they do to your family, Sydney?” I whisper. The stagnant air holds between us, his hands tighten on the exam table and for a short second I think his self-control might actually shatter and he’ll hit me. I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t a part of me that begged him to do it, just so I could have the satisfaction of striking back. He doesn’t. He sits back and unfastens the first two buttons of his shirt, then pushes it aside.
If the mark across Ayana’s chest is a whisper of a past pain, then Sydney’s is a hoarse screech of agony. The skin is mottled and raised in horrible healed over sores that span his entire left shoulder. If there’s one thing that I am capable of understanding it is pain, and it’s clear that the large splashes of tattered swollen skin is something Sydney is lucky to have survived. I can’t help but wonder if everyone in this world shaped by scars. It seems like there is no person among the New Order with unmarred skin.
“This is the kind of thing you’re responsible for. Even if you didn’t do it with your hands, they were hands like yours. Hands that belong to something that barely qualifies as human,” his eyes scan over my body before resting on my eyes. His lip curls in disgust. “But you don’t even feel guilt, do you? You’re a thing, a broken thing that doesn’t feel accountable for it’s actions and that is why I hate you.”
His words are venom and fire and revulsion and I think somewhere inside I have enough clarity of feeling to know I hate him for it. Because as much as I know that I’m broken, that he’s right and I’m free of the pain of regret— I’m the one they Switched back. I’m the one they’re asking for help. Threatening me into doing it. I am exactly what they made me to be. Sydney thinks that because I am broken, I am weak in comparison. That I am less because of a few chemicals that I’m missing. I loathe him for it. I want to make him suffer for it.
I’m about to say as much when Sydney yanks his shirt back into place and resumes stitching, pulling harder than probably necessary. I blink, surprised he dropped it so quickly. I focus on the pull of skin around the cut in an effort to maintain control. Grit your teeth. Focus on the pain, hide the rage.
Tying off the final stitch, Sydney opens a metal drawer and removes a long syringe. When he approaches me, hand out, I jerk away, eyeing him with open suspicion. He rolls his eyes.
“It’s for infection,” he says. “Probably wasn’t a clean blade, if that gets deeply infected you could lose the arm.”
I make no move to allow him access to my arm.
“What’s the issue?” he says snidely. “You just let me stitch you up.”
“Last time someone stuck a needle in me I ended up unconscious,” I reply.
He stares openly, with a small look of interest before he grimaces and sighs, “I’ll see if we can’t find something in pill form.”
After a few moments of rummaging around in a cabinet he sends me off, ambling down the hall and back towards my quarters, two white pills grasped in hand.